Vox Populi: ‘The referendum of 1997: the settled will of the Scottish people?’.

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On 21 May 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome the BBC’s Brian Taylor who discussed,  ‘The referendum of 1997: the settled will of the Scottish people?’, as the final seminar in the Vox Populi series which has ran for the last nine months. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Tony Blair came to power in a landslide victory in May of 1997 and is often credited with spearheading or even conceiving the devolution of Scotland later that year. Yet the genesis of devolution lay much earlier. Labour were certainly always involved in crafting devolution and the party regarded itself as the ‘guardian of Scotland’s ethos’. 

In 1989, the majority of Scotland’s politicians signed the Claim of Right for Scotland which  declared the sovereignty of the Scottish people. It reads:

“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount. 

We further declare and pledge that our actions and deliberations shall be directed to the following ends:

To agree a scheme for an Assembly or Parliament for Scotland;

To mobilise Scottish opinion and ensure the approval of the Scottish people for that scheme; 

And to assert the right of the Scottish people to secure implementation of that scheme.

Labour worried about the nationalistic tone of the document while the SNP feared it was some kind of Unionist trap. Yet apart from Tom Dalyell, all Labour and Liberal Democrats MPs signed the Claim of Right and it ultimately led to the creation of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. This cross party programme was aimed at securing devolution for Scotland. Brian argued that Labour saw devolution as an opportunity to marginalise the SNP in wider Scottish politics and curb their calls for independence. Furthermore, he argued that Labour were not always pro-Home Rule but made politically calculated decision depending on contingent circumstances. In many ways, Labour were running to catch up with the Scottish people, who already seemed beyond the devolution question.

The SNP initially joined the convention but left abruptly as they felt the Labour majority meant the proposed referendum was ‘rigged’. Privately, Alex Salmond was unhappy about Gordon Wilson (his party leader) leaving the convention so early, he felt they should have attempted to work with it for longer. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were very hostile to the idea of devolution with John Major calling it a ‘dangerous proposition’.

Ultimately, the campaign for devolution was relatively one-sided. The Yes campaign, ‘Scotland Forward’ was supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens. While the No campaign, ‘Think Twice’, was only supported by the Conservatives. Brian noted that the internal differences between the Labour and the Liberal Democrats were fairly easy to iron out. Not so between Labour and the SNP. Indeed, Salmond only agreed to support the Yes campaign when he obtained an assurance from Donald Dewar that no obstacle would be put in place for an eventual independence referendum. In the Labour camp there were great fears about the second question of the referendum, which called for tax varying powers for the proposed parliament. After much controversy in the run-up to the referendum, these powers have been barely used since 1997. The No campaign was poorly represented by politicians and implicitly, the ‘Think Twice’ message conceded the Yes campaign was in the lead.

The referendum was posed on 11 September 1997, with a decisive double-Yes vote (74.3% in favour of a Scottish parliament and 63.5% agreed it should have tax varying powers). 

After the talk, Brian answered questions from the audience. Brian outlined Alex Salmond’s current mind-set regarding the upcoming 2014 referendum. Perhaps counter-intuitively, he claims that Salmond hopes for an improvement in the economy as it will provide a confident under-pinning that will convince Scots to go alone. Professor Broun, who led the very first lecture of this period, pointed out that the 1997 referendum was, coincidentally or not, held on the 700th anniversary of the battle of Stirling Bridge!

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

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